I started my business in 1986 by calling every company I could in the Blue Book. There’s no sugarcoating this: It sucked. I was good at cold calls, but it was still a pain in the neck. My goal became to set up a by-referral only business. Did I succeed? Well, in 1994, I switched my main business line to a private number.
The only way a person could call me is if they knew someone who already had my number. By that time, I had an ironclad referral process, and my business is still thriving today.
When I talk to salespeople, however, I hear the same thing over and over: Referrals are very important, but their referral processes are weak or only moderately effective.
Why the gap? Some of it is in salespeople’s heads. They don’t want to appear needy by asking for help.
But I don’t think you should wait for referrals to come to you sporadically -- you should proactively seek them, no matter what industry you’re in. If you do, you’ll work with more qualified prospects and enjoy a much shorter sales cycle.
You will also virtually eliminate objections of the ilk that the prospect doesn’t trust you. Trust is already built in, thanks to your referrer.
So, how do you ask for referrals? It requires a deft, tactical approach. Below are a few of my tips
How to Ask for Referrals
- Don't Expect Immediate Results
- Build Value First
- Ask, "Who Do You Like?"
- Don't Treat Referrals Like Cold Calls
- Offer Incentives
- Get Specific
- Develop a Referral Mindset
Before getting into role plays and email templates, here are some general rules around building a referral process to keep in mind.
1. Don’t expect immediate results
Referrals can be an extremely effective way to grow a business, but they’re a snowball strategy rather than an explosive one. Don’t expect immediate results.
2. Build value first
You can certainly ask for client referrals immediately after closing the deal -- but I wouldn’t recommend it. Wait until you provided your clients with unparalleled service. They’ll be more likely to share names of trusted colleagues with you once they know you haven’t just been trying to get them to sign.
Share relevant content with them, stay in touch after the close, and let them know when your company releases new products or features that would benefit them. Reach out three-to-six months after you close their business, and ask for referrals only if you’ve delighted them thus far.
3. Ask, “Who do you like?"
When I first started seeking referrals, I’d ask customers “Who do you know?" I’d get names, yes, but I’d often get referrals of contacts they didn’t have strong relationships with.
To counter this, I changed my question to “Who do you like?" to ensure I get referred to people my customer has close working relationships with. When you receive referrals of people your clients have, at best, passing or lukewarm relationships with, they’re not much better than cold walls. Ask for people they like, and you’ll benefit from the closeness and trust that relationship already has.
4. Don’t treat referrals like cold calls
Because they’re not. Enter into a conversation with a referral with a much friendlier tone. Play up the relationship you have with the referrer, and act like you’re already in their inner circle -- because, in a way, you are.
When appropriate, ask your referrer if their referral has any interests or hobbies. When you place your first call, break the ice by saying, “Blair mentioned you know all the best restaurants in Chicago. I’m headed there for work next month and would love some recommendations." You’ll make the referral relaxed, and you’ll bridge the gap between you and the referrer.
5. Offer incentives
You might be offering great client service, but sometimes it’s still not enough to get those referrals. It’s time to incentivize your clients. Offer Amazon gift cards, a discount on next month’s invoice, or a charitable donation to the charity of their choice.
Send this incentive offer to a portion of your happiest clients, and tell them the first 10 to respond with a referral will receive the prize. You might be surprised at how fast those referrals suddenly come to your clients’ minds.
6. Get specific
If “Who do you like" isn’t garnering the qualified leads you need, dial in your request. If you’re selling automobiles, call up a buyer a few months after they purchased their car and ask how they like their new car.
Once you’ve ascertained they’re happy and there’s nothing else you can do to improve their experience, you might ask, “Do you have any friends who are looking for a new car?" You might even joke with them a little by saying, “Or friends who need a new car but just don’t know it yet?"
7. Develop a referral mindset
If you want to get referrals, you should also give referrals. This is what I call a “referral mindset." Help your contacts and acquaintances grow their businesses by hooking them up with people in your network, and they’ll feel inclined to return the favor.
Referral Role Play Exercises
Setting the stage for referrals
While I'd never recommend asking a prospect for referrals, I would recommend you set the stage for a future request. Here's how to practice this scenario with your fellow salespeople with a role play exercise:
Salesperson: "It seems as though you’re a pretty sharp guy. I don’t know where this process is going to end up, but can I ask you a question?"
Salesperson: "Have you ever done business with someone you really liked a lot? Someone who you felt over-delivered? Can you think of one example in particular?"
Prospect: "I have, and I can think of a service that exceeded my expectations."
Salesperson: "Can I ask -- how many people did you tell about them?"
Prospect: "I told [x number] of people."
Salesperson: "If we end up working together and I deliver to you that same kind of experience, would you keep it to yourself or would you share it?"
There are two ways the conversation can go from here -- either the prospect says they would definitely share, or they say they might or would not. If you get the first response, you've laid the groundwork for referrals. The second response is trickier.
In the event of an “I wouldn’t or “I’m not sure, I recommend following up with:
Salesperson: "What could I do to change your mind there? Is this a topic we could revisit if/when I earn your business and exceed expectations?"
I find the prospect usually backtracks and says they would be willing to tell friends. In the slim chance they stick to their guns, it’s good to find out early, as this might signal they're not a good fit for your business.
Asking for a referral
Once I sign a new customer, I let enough time pass to produce some results. I want the client to decide whether they're pleased with my work or not. This could take a week, or it could be a few months, but when I'm satisfied I've made an impression, I follow up by asking directly for referrals:
Salesperson: "You told me you’re happy with my work thus far. Have you told anybody about what we’ve done together?"
Salesperson: "Is it because you’re not pleased with the outcomes?"
Customer: "No, we’re pretty happy."
Salesperson: "Well then, do you think what we do together would be beneficial to your clients, vendors, or competitors?"
Customer: "I don’t want you working with my competitors, but maybe some of my vendors."
Salesperson: "Your vendors then -- do you have a favorite? Do they sell to other people you know?"
Customer: "Yeah, we have a good relationship."
Salesperson: "And are any of your favorite vendors trying to grow their businesses?"
Customer: "Yes, a few in particular."
Salesperson: "Okay. In that case, if you called or sent an email and said ‘I’ve been working with Rick for six months, and we’re starting to do some pretty interesting stuff. I know you’re growing your business, so I thought I’d put you two together,' would they like you for that or not like you?"
If your customer thinks that would be fine to do, send out the email template below.
If your customer is on the fence, work to reframe the situation to assure them they’d be helping the referred party, not setting a money-hungry salesperson on their trail. Emphasize your purpose is to grow businesses -- or whatever your company’s mission may be -- and not to be a hard-pitching nuisance.
Referral Email Sample
When requesting a referral, you want to keep the focus on your client and their happiness. You don't want to appear like a lead-hungry salesperson who's done with them and ready to move on to their friends.
Instead, only ask for a referral after first ensuring they're happy with your product/service and can think of no way in which their experience could be improved. Then, gently ask if they have a friend or industry colleague you might be able to achieve similar results with. Here's an example:
Hello [Client name],
I'm so glad to hear you're happy with the results of working with [Your company name] so far. I knew we could help, and I'm pleased you're seeing results so quickly.
Since things are going to well, I found myself wondering if you have any colleagues at similar companies who would benefit from our [product/service]. I would love to help them achieve similar growth.
This is friendly, focuses on your customer's success, and is hopeful you can help one of their friends at another company achieve the same results. Who could say no to that?
Referral Email Template
If you have a favorable response to the email above, reply with, "Great, I have an easy email template I'll share with you. All you have to do is press send!" Provide them with the email template below, and you'll make it simple for customers to refer you:
I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I've been working with [Salesperson name] for a few months. The other day, I was talking with her about some of the things she and I have done, and I realized I should put you two together. So...
[Referral], meet [Salesperson, with a LinkedIn profile URL].
[Salesperson], meet [Referral, with a LinkedIn profile URL].
Can I leave the rest to you guys?
Talk to you both later.
The customer isn’t asked to explain what the salesperson does. It's not their job to sell the referral.
Phrasing it in this manner builds on the mutual respect between customer and referral by implying the referral can give the salesperson the benefit of the doubt. Also, because both the customer and the salesperson are on the email, it would be appropriate for either to follow up.
After sending this referral template, I usually check in a week or two later with my customer and ask -- gently -- if they sent it out. If they haven’t, I reply that it’s no problem, and I do not ask again.
If, on the other hand, they have sent it, and I have not been included on a reply, I ask if the customer got a “No, thank you" from the referral. If that’s the case, I cross that referral off my list. If there was no reply at all, I ask if they would like me to reach out directly.
This approach to getting referrals has worked for me, and it will work for you. Don’t wait for referrals to trickle in -- formalize your process, and launch it today.